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Summer 2006 Vol. 6 No. 2



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MEETINGS


Participants at an April 2006 National Academies event to encourage girls to pursue careers in science and technology and launch a new paperback book series, "Women's Adventures in Science," photos by William Geiger

YOU GO, GIRL!
Project Encourages Girls to Chase
S&T Careers



They took different paths to careers in science and technology, but the women who discussed their experiences at a National Academies event this spring shared two key traits: a thirst for knowledge and a belief that hard work and determination can overcome barriers. Sometimes the barriers even take the form of teachers or college professors who discourage unconventional dreams -- like the high school chemistry instructor who told a teenage Rita Colwell that she would never make it in that class because women couldn't do such work; or colleagues who assume that women scientists can't successfully juggle a family and the demands of the tenure track.

The women emphasized that supportive mentors, parents, and friends can make all the difference.

Speakers at an April 2006 National Academies event to encourage girls to pursue careers in science and technology and launch a new paperback book series, "Women's Adventures in Science," photos by William Geiger
Speakers at an April 2006 National Academies event to encourage girls to pursue careers in science and technology and launch a new paperback book series, "Women's Adventures in Science," photos by William Geiger
Speakers at an April 2006 National Academies event to encourage girls to pursue careers in science and technology and launch a new paperback book series, "Women's Adventures in Science," photos by William Geiger
Speakers at an April 2006 National Academies event to encourage girls to pursue careers in science and technology and launch a new paperback book series, "Women's Adventures in Science," photos by William Geiger
Speakers at an April 2006 National Academies event to encourage girls to pursue careers in science and technology and launch a new paperback book series, "Women's Adventures in Science," photos by William Geiger

It can be tough for a girl who may enjoy playing with a homemade chemistry set more than Barbie dolls, said participant Diane France, recalling her childhood experiences. France is now a world-renowned forensic anthropologist and director of the Human Identification Laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

The discussion was part of an April event at which the National Academies Press launched a new paperback series for young students called "Women's Adventures in Science," about some of today's outstanding women scientists. The event was designed to encourage middle school girls to pursue S&T careers, and it included hands-on science demonstrations led by France and two other scientists from the series -- robot designer Cynthia Breazeal, who directs the Robotic Life Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Adriana Ocampo, a planetary geologist for NASA. About 60 girls took part.

The goal of the series is to raise awareness about the contributions of contemporary women scientists and to help increase the flow of talented students, especially girls, into scientific and technical fields. Researchers and many policymakers say there is a clear need for greater diversity in the ranks. U.S. women with bachelor's degrees, for example, are much less likely than their male peers to have majored in computer science, engineering, and physical sciences.

Colwell, the first woman to head the National Science Foundation, told the audience at the panel discussion that preparing more girls and young women for S&T careers would expand their job options and ultimately increase the nation's economic competitiveness.

And science should not be viewed as the exclusive domain of so-called brainiacs or geeks, said panel member Heidi Hammel, a planetary astronomer who is featured in the book series. "We don't all have to be Einsteins," she quipped. "…We're regular people who just work hard."

The book series and an accompanying Web site -- <www.iwaswondering.org> -- are underwritten by the National Academy of Sciences, with significant financial support from philanthropist Sara Lee Schupf and her family. Schupf, a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, attended the launch. "If we have visible role models and mentors, then statistics show that you will have more girls and women interested in science," she said in an interview, also emphasizing the need for parents to encourage girls in these areas.

Participants and speakers at an April 2006 National Academies event to encourage girls to pursue careers in science and technology and launch a new paperback book series, "Women's Adventures in Science," photos by William Geiger

In one of the interactive sessions for students, two pizza-shaped heaps of white flour were covered with a layer of red seasoned salt to resemble the surface of Mars. Using rubber bands, several girls participating in Adriana Ocampo's demonstration about impact craters gleefully flung sugar cubes onto the surface. The resulting holes from these makeshift asteroids and comets, Ocampo explained, were akin to craters, which scientists study to learn about a host of geological issues.

Zana Holden-Gatlin, a sixth-grader at Hardy Middle School in Washington, D.C., described the session as "interesting" because she previously knew little about craters. And the event itself was worthwhile, said the future autism therapist. "I think it's a really great thing that they're doing, especially for young girls today."
  -- Vanee Vines



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Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences